If they weren’t fretting over tickets, Toronto FC fans spent the past week obsessing over what might happen on Saturday. The team’s form has been hard to read recently, and the Seattle Sounders have cruised through the Western Conference field.
Still, the MLS Cup final this weekend almost feels like it’ll take place in a vacuum. TFC will have had 10 days off to prepare (which has felt just as long as the break before the Eastern Conference final). Plus, this is the game they’ve been waiting for since 2016.
Whether or not TFC can pull off the win on home soil this time largely depends on their game plan. The Sounders obviously know what can be done to neutralize Toronto, as they showed last year (Columbus and New York clearly took notes). It’s up to Greg Vanney’s men to find a way around that.
So, for the final time this season, here are three major things to focus on heading into this Saturday’s clash.
Use the wings
In last year’s MLS Cup final, TFC had no shortage of opportunities. They directed 19 shots at the Seattle net, seven of which made it all the way through to Stefan Frei. One thing that stands out, though, is that their attacks were a little repetitive.
The Reds (Sebastian Giovinco especially) took a lot of shots from outside the box, almost all of which were blocked. Only Jozy Altidore and Benoit Cheyrou managed to put one of those long blasts on target.
Most of TFC’s remaining shots on goal came off the head of a forward after a cross. This strategy worked fairly well despite never resulting in a goal; usually when you have five shots on target from inside the 18-yard box, one of them goes in.
Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour have become an integral part of Toronto’s attack. Their pace on the wing can be used to pull a bunkering Seattle team out of position, perhaps giving someone like Giovinco or Victor Vazquez a little bit more freedom.
That said, the best strategy might not be to just find a wing-back in the corner and take a chance on a cross. Instead, the Reds should really be using Morrow and Beitashour to develop plays out wide before they work the ball into a better scoring position through shorter passes. Vazquez can help out a lot there.
Seattle loves attacking down the left; their trio of Nicolas Lodeiro, Clint Dempsey and Joevin Jones has a tendency to heavily favour the left wing. That’s why Beitashour will likely get in for TFC ahead of the more offensive-minded Nicolas Hasler.
Still, Beitashour is not devoid of pace or talent; the Reds can (and often will) use him to develop play along that side almost as much as they can with Morrow.
Strike back for Italy
One piece of good news for TFC this week was that Seattle captain Osvaldo Alonso will not be fit for the final. Giovinco surely breathed a sigh of relief when he heard that.
Alonso was an absolute monster in the 2016 final - he made two tackles, blocked two shots, intercepted three passes, kicked out eight clearances, and recovered the ball for his side 13 times. He effectively had Giovinco in his back pocket the entire night.
This year, Seba will instead be up against Gustav Svensson, who played a role in knocking his native Italy out of the World Cup earlier in November. So, Giovinco now has a chance to do what the Azzurri could not: beat a Swedish defender and score.
We’ve beaten to death the importance of Seba and Altidore in this game. We know TFC will need to score, and we know it’s probably going to have to be one of them.
Thankfully for Giovinco, Svensson is no Alonso. The Swede is by no means a poor defender; he’s very effective in his own right, and he’s done remarkably well in Alonso’s absence these playoffs. Still, Alonso’s play had something in it that just seemed to completely shut down TFC’s greatest weapon.
Svensson is apparently nursing a hamstring issue, which might keep him a step behind. The Reds might be wise to identify him as the link in Seattle’s back line that they should run at.
Don’t get ahead of yourself
Everyone is on edge in a one-game playoff. TFC have definitely had it hammered into their brains how costly a single mistake could be. Ideally they won’t make any, and it’ll be the home team defending a lead late in the game.
Still, we have to consider the possibility of Seattle scoring first. They’re no strangers to scoring away from home this year (sixth in MLS with 22), and nothing would suit them more than for an early goal to silence the BMO Field crowd.
TFC also need to keep their discipline, which they did well against Columbus. Seattle commit the fewest fouls in MLS, and they were one of the least-booked teams in the league.
So Toronto have to approach this game as an even contest, not a pre-ordained right. They may well fall behind at some point, at which point it’s on them to stay alive. If the Sounders do go ahead, they’d like the rest of the game to be excruciatingly boring. TFC are capable of coming back from a deficit, but that’s not something they’ve had to do in the playoffs yet this year.
Every tense moment of this game should be taken one at a time. Although the prevailing narrative is that there’s no room for error, the world will not end if Seattle opens the game with a goal. TFC can be comforted by the fact that there are no away goals in the MLS Cup final; home-field advantage is well and truly theirs.